Puerto Rico offers lessons for popular charter school movement

Two Bold Bids To Improve Education in the Classroom

Rafael Cordero High School sits amid a notorious crime corridor and serves students from violence-ridden housing projects. Its dropout rate has been among the island's worst.

Yet over the past few years, this stepchild of a school has shown marked gains: Dropout rates are down and teacher absenteeism has improved.

The transformation is the result of Puerto Rico's massive push to institute charter schools islandwide - an effort closely watched as the boldest experiment in charter schools in the US. Three years ago, the island opened its first charter schools. Today there are 521, twice as many as in all 26 states with charter-school laws on the US mainland.

The trials and triumphs of Puerto Rico's charter-school movement offer powerful lessons in what works and what doesn't in an area that is perhaps the most popular education reform being advanced today on the United States mainland.

Three years after the first charter school opened here, the verdict is that the site-managed schools have improved the quality of education, but that more teacher training and administrative support is needed.

Cautious optimism has replaced bold predictions even among the most strident reform advocates. "This is not a miracle we are making," says Education Secretary Victor Fajardo. "The important thing is there is proof the system as a whole is improving."

Both student and teacher absenteeism, he points out, decreased by four percentage points between the year before the charter-school program began and last year. Incidents of vandalism, another perennial school problem, dropped from 25 percent to 15 percent in charter schools.

In June, all but one of Rafael Cordero's 84 12th graders graduated, compared with a previous dropout rate of about 20 percent and an overall island dropout rate of 30 percent.

But reform leaders admit that serious improvement is needed in training, personnel hiring, and communication between the school councils that manage each school and the education department.

Puerto Rico's charter schools are actually called community schools, but in the eyes of the US Education Department and reform leaders they are "weak" charter schools. A charter school is one that is ruled by a contract with the state and is independent from laws setting curriculum and other such regulations. The philosophy is that a school free from school boards and departments of education can meet educational challenges more creatively.

Puerto Rico's community schools are considered "weak" because they still fall under the jurisdiction of the commonwealth education department, Puerto Rico's version of a school board. The school councils set their own curriculum, for example, but it must fall within the standards laid out by the education department.

Not everyone is happy with the push for charter schools here. Some education leaders, particularly members of the island's two largest teachers unions, have criticized the administration for jumping headfirst into what they say are "untested waters" with its aggressive plan.

Education officials argue that experimenting is a luxury the island can't afford. For decades the Puerto Rico public school system has been decried by all sides as being mired in political favoritism, bureaucracy, and neglect.

Recent studies on the charter schools cite shortcomings. One report on Rafael Cordero school completed earlier this year concludes that 82 percent of the students dedicate little time to study. And, while enthusiastic about the community-school concept, more than half the Rafael Cordero parents interviewed were unable to describe their child's academic program.

Finally, while the school's air-conditioned library holds thousands of general interest books, a photocopy machine, and two television sets, it has only three shelves of books on business-related subjects, the core of every student's curriculum at that school.

Even a study conducted by Puerto Rico's education department found that the majority of council members interviewed for a government study last year said they need more information on their duties in order to carry them out effectively. The 1995 study was based on interviews with more than 12,000 community-school council members, teachers, students, parents, and principals.

Many of the complaints of teachers and principals were directed at the Institute of Education Reform, an arm of the education department established to carry out the reform effort. They reported that institute officials did not respond rapidly to their questions or requests - harking back to the days of red tape the reform was expected to quash.

The study in general paints a positive picture of parental and student attitudes toward community schools, though. Ninety-five percent of the parents interviewed said they have become more involved in their children's schools since the changeover. And 88 percent of the students on the councils that govern the community schools said they felt their input in the decisionmaking process was taken seriously by other council members.

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